Archive for the ‘music’ Category

The Boy is in the band. I knew that. Three days ago he informed me he was also in “Honor Band,” and would be playing in the Oregon Music Educators Association District VI Honor Choir/Honor Band Festival Concert. I signed the permission form, coughed up money, and then for two days got up at obscenely early hours to get him down to the school to catch the bus for an hour and a half ride over to the heart of Cow Country, which is where the Festival was being held this year.

Last night as the sun was setting over the harvested wheat fields I made the drive over to the heart of Cow Country myself, to hear the best high school musicians in our part of the state play and sing. It was amazing. I don’t have a DVD yet, and wouldn’t know how to share it if I did, but I’ve got YouTube and found my favorite pieces to share with you. I even tried to match sound and tempo, as much as possible.

So imagine that you live in Cow Country or thereabouts, and that I’ve pulled up in front of your house and honked the horn. You’ve grabbed your jacket (nights are cold here) and your purse (if you’re female), locked your door, and hurried down your front walk to the street. My mom’s already riding shotgun, so you climb in the back, but first you have to push aside the blankets smart folks always carry in their cars around here this time of year. You also have to push aside The Boy’s middle school football jersey and pads, which I have been meaning to take back to the school and keep forgetting. But no matter, you’re in, and the door has closed. All is well. We go through the Umatilla India Reservation and pass the casino, then get onto the freeway. This is what we have to do in order to get to the concert–up here many roads snake through the back country, but they are field roads, and sometimes end without warning. Also they are not paved. To get from our part of Cow Country to the part of Cow Country where the festival is being held the freeway is necessary; it’s the only paved road for miles.

There’s a funny squeak under my hood and I worry that the belt tightener I had replaced a few weeks ago is perhaps not all it might be. It came from a junk yard, after all–who knows what it’s been through? I give thanks privately that my mother is along, because I forgot to charge up my cell phone before I left home. If the belt tightener gives up the ghost I’ll borrow Mom’s cell phone and call Triple A. All is well.

We find the school (the nice thing about small towns is that it’s pretty easy to find just about anything), identify the door we will enter, park, go inside, and pay the $2 the man at the door is asking for. And here we sit, in the auditorium in the middle of Cow Country, my mom (who I have picked up in another corner of Cow Country and brought with me), you, my best pal Jeanne, who I have known since I was five years old, and me. Turns out her sister’s girl is also in the concert, which is a nice surprise to all of us, since her sister has neglected to mention anything about it. While we wait for the music to start we catch up–Jeanne shows us her wallet pictures of her grandchildren, her son in the Navy (or something with a sailor hat, anyhow) and then the band files in to sit on the other side of the auditorium while the choir performs. Jeanne hurries over to track down her flautist niece, and learn if her sister plans to come to the concert. I read my program, which lists the names and schools of all of the participating musicians and band directors, and discover that one of The Boy’s fellow tubists comes from the tiny town in an incredibly remote corner of Cow Country where I was born, where I spent my summers working on the ranch where my dad was foreman. The youngest son of my dad’s ex-boss is now the band teacher in that tiny town. I look around and try to spot him. I can’t, but this is hardly surprising. After all, I last saw him when he was about three.

A gray-haired man stops by my seat, leans down, and informs me that back in the days when I was too young to drive on the highways he used to work harvest at the ranch. I remember him well–he was my first crush. I am very glad I’ve covered all the gray in my own hair. I’m still a stout middle-aged lady, but at least my hair looks nice. He tells me he has a print brokering business and a daughter performing in the choir, then leaves to find his seat. Jeanne comes back. She has found her niece. Her sister may or may not show. The lights go down, the choir files in, and magic begins.

This first number is “Requiem,” was composed by Eliza Gilkyson. It was written for the tsunami victims a few years ago. Here’s a choir singing it (not our kids, obviously, but you get the idea.) The words are incredibly complex, and combined with the music incredibly touching (for me, at least)

Here’s a spiritual, “Wade in de Water.” This was The Boy’s favorite.


We talk amongst ourselves while band directors and men they have dragooned into helping tear apart the choir risers and haul them off the stage, then set up a hundred chairs and music stands. And then the band shuffles in, carrying their instruments. The percussion and brass sections go in first, and there is The Boy, tallest kid on the stage, all in black except for a white shirt that he’s wearing under a black sweater, hair freshly cut. I look at him and think how beautiful he is, but of course I don’t say that–there are limits to how much a mother should brag on a given night, and I’ve already passed mine. I look at the other tuba players and wonder which one comes from the town where I was born.

“I can’t see my niece,” Jeanne says. “I think she’s behind that girl in the front row.” We spend the rest of the concert trying to find her niece’s face. And then the music starts, and we quiet down enough to be annoyed by the woman in the row behind us, who is either crushing croutons or eating Chex Party Mix out of a crackly bag. I’m sure it annoys you, too, but never mind. Ignore her. We are. All is well. The band director steps up onto his little box, and here we go. Here’s the “Jackson Lake Overture.”

… and here’s “Polly Oliver,” an English folksong. There’s a little added drama here when somebody in the percussion section kicks the bass drum over into the boy playing the sousaphone. But never mind. We wait while they roll the drum back to their section and wrestle it back onto its stand and the sousaphone boy rights himself and checks his instrument for new dents. All is well. The conductor lifts his arms, and …

…and “Prairie Dances”…

… and finally, the number The Boy and I agreed was probably the best, “Fairest of the Fair,” a John Phillip Sousa march I’d never heard, composed in honor of a beautiful woman manning a booth at a fair where Sousa was playing. He composed a song for her. The year was 1908, the same year my Grandpa was born.

And it is over. Jeanne leaves us in the parking lot. We get on the freeway again and follow trucker tail lights through the dark, empty fields to Mom’s house, and then it’s just the two of us. You fight free of the football pads and climb into the front seat and we start the last leg of the journey. I speed a bit, because the bus is due back at the school in half an hour, and we have about 40 minutes of driving to do. I drop you off, and make the last of the trip in the quiet car, listening to the funny noise under my hood. I breathe a sigh of relief when pull into the school parking lot and the bus is not there. I have made it in time…unless they’ve already been and gone? I worry. But then I realize that, because I broke the law, I arrived well before the bus was scheduled to arrive. All is well. If the part under the hood gives way we can get a ride home with somebody. We are among friends.

And there’s the bus.

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Tonight The Boy and I were watching “Which Die Is That Again?” on YouTube and laughing like hyenas and visiting their webstore and plotting future purchases (a t-shirt that says “Game Master: Because My Shirt Says so”) when suddenly, out of the clear blue sky, he said, “Play that Sarah Palin song, Mom.”

“Which one?” I asked, after a brief scan of the memory banks.

“You know, the one with the man and the lady just staring into the camera,” he said.

And it all came back to me.

And so for today, join me, if you will, in the Wayback Machine, which we’ll set for late summer, 2008.

But before we go, a brief word about some of the unsung heroes of our modern society, the nameless, faceless, drones who sit in windowless cubicles in some featureless gray tower from which there is no ingress or egress except at shift changes, view the misspelled and often erroneous word strings we type into the “search” bars, dive into a massive vault of old electronic files (I picture it sort of like Scrooge McDuck’s money vault, but with thumb drives) and emerge clutching a clean, shining byte of information in their trembling, pasty hand. Often it’s not the right byte, which is how we happened upon the Sarah Palin song in the first place, but this time, armed only with the information that I wanted a song about SP, sung by a man and woman sitting in front of unfortunate orange wallpaper, staring into the camera my search bar minion came up with the right answer in under a minute. We listened to it again, and loved it as much as we did the first time and so, for your viewing pleasure, and because I remembered to copy the “share” code before I closed the window, without further ado, I present, “The Sarah Palin Song Sung By A Man And A Lady Staring Into The Camera.” It’s not what YouTube calls it, but hey, that’ll get you there. Enjoy. Thank you, Search Bar Minion.

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This summer I’ve done something that I’ve never really done before: I made formal arrangements to give a little something back to my community. I’ve always been happy to support community and school activities, but I’ve never before made a formal time commitment to give in a specific way.

I know I talk about living in a small town a lot, but one of the things I love the most about it is that you don’t have to be very good at a thing to make a contribution. Take, for instance, music. I’ve mentioned that Patrick is very good at music, but he apparently got that from the milk man, because I can’t carry a tune in a bucket with the lid nailed down. Nor am I very good at instruments. I play the piano well enough to entertain myself, but those around me usually breathe a sign of relief when I close the keyboard. I’m not good at it, but I do know the basics–the notes, timing, registration, stuff like that.

Patrick and I have benefitted enormously from Megan’s after school and summer daycamp program, and this spring we decided that it was our turn to give a bit back. We talked to Megan, who was delighted to slot Patrick in with some tutoring time in math and reading. And we decided that I would give piano lessons.

As I said, I am far from concert caliber, but I do know the basics. Megan made a list of the kids who wanted to learn. It was a mixed bag; several face special learning challenges, while some were already proficient on another instrument, and just needed help transferring their skills and knowledge to the piano.

And so this summer, every Thursday and Friday, I go out to the day camp and give music lessons–in most cases to young people who find complexity baffling. And they’re actually learning–and what’s more, they’re loving the experience.

They’re learning, but I’m learning far more. This summer has challenged many of my ideas about music, and learning, and teaching. Most of all, it has taught me the beauty of simplicty. Take, for example, how music is written and read.

For those of you who never took music lessons, this is the process:

1. Memorize the piano keyboard, using the letters from A to G.

2. Memorize musical notation, which is nothing more than black dots and lines, placed at various points on two five-line, four-space areas. Notes may also be written far above and below the baselines and spaces. Notes for the two lines occur at different points on the lines and spaces.

3. Identify the note based on its location on the lines and spaces, and translate that note to the piano keyboard–a completely different, and absolutely arbitrary transition.

4. Identify how fast or slow to play the note.

5. Play the note.

6. Do the same thing for every single note on the page.

For the thousands of people who play the piano well, this happens so quickly that it’s nearly instantaneous. But even before I started, I realized that the abstract connection between written notes and the keyboard was not a connection that some of my students would easily make, and unless I could find a way of simplifying the process frustration would end the experiment before we had even started.

And then I got the idea of color coding. I color coded the keyboard and each students’ fingers–and then I found simple music (no more than one note at a time) and wrote it not in musical notation, but in color.

And it’s working. Through a process of trial and error I’ve learned that for one group of students–the children with Down Syndrome–one note at a time is all that we can comfortably manage for the moment. But the linear focus that makes adding additional notes difficult proves a wonderful asset in another way. We started playing together–rounds mostly. Today we had three people each playing one part of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”–and it absolutely worked. Harmony and complexity happened.

I’ve been tracking down rounds and writing them for five notes, using color. And it works. And suddenly I’m seeing that the sky is the limit here. By combining players carefully (one student who is a beginner with one or two who are transferring to the piano) even I, who am no musician, can offer the experience of music to a group of people for who it has been out of reach.

I love my mornings there. I spend hours in between tracking down simple musical arrangements and transposing them to the color notation system. I’m on the prowl for a young readers’ life of Beethoven for Annalee, who is deaf, and who is experiencing music in the same way that Beethoven did when he wrote his Ninth Symphony–by leaning against a resonating surface and feeling the notes vibrate in the wood. I’m going to download the Ninth Symphony, find the biggest speakers I can, have Annalee press her back against them, and crank the stereo. I just found the music for one of the very first songs in the English language for which we have music. It’s a round, and it talks about cows farting, of all things. I’m going to teach it to the kids. How cool is that? These kids, who are just starting to explore the world of music, will be playing a song that was written when English-speaking people as a group were just beginning to to do the same thing.

I might be teaching the day camp kids the basics of music, but this summer has taught me far more. I had always thought of music as something I heard. This summer has taught me that it’s so very, very much more.

So, here’s where you can help. Think back to camp, or church, or school, or whatever, and send me the names of the rounds you sang.

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Yesterday the House Leroy and I drove up through the Blue Mountains and into the Wallowas to Wallowa Lake to retrieve The Boy. It’s a good time of year for it; the fields down here in the valley are a patchwork of green, gold, and brown, but as we drove up into the Blues the fields turned to green meadows filled with wildflowers, and snowmelt streams still edge with icy lace poured down into the swollen rivers. As we reached the summit of the Blues snowbanks still lingered in shadows, and banks of daffodils bloomed by abandoned cabins.

This used to be a big area for logging, but since the industry basically folded years ago the only real industries are ranching, and in some places, tourism. People come here to go rafting, fishing, and hiking. Some come to pan for gold. We came to retrieve Patrick, The Boy, from Brass Camp.

Oregon isĀ  a state of contrasts. We have the urban, civilized, and agricultural Willamette Valley corridor. We have the agricultural north central part of the state, where I live. And we have thousands of square miles of empty space divided into desert and forest. Traveling from my home in the agricultural north central part of the state up into the Wallowas is like going to another world. The very energy of the mountains is different.

As we drove I pursued my usual hobby of picking out houses I love. It’s become something of a joke on car trips. By now both Patrick and the House Leroy can pick out my houses for me, with some accuracy. But when I started picking out old farmhouses situated in meadows and log cabins tucked into the forests Leroy said, “Yeah, right..you, a woman alone living up here. You’d better learn how to shoot straight.”

Turns out Leroy was just remembering what I should have remembered from my childhood in the mountains: People who move to the backwoods in Oregon generally do it for a reason. Some, like me, just love the energy and solitude. Many do it because they Don’t Play Well With Others. Some even Run With Scissors. Living alone in what is essentially wilderness demands a certain set of skills–and a certain type of personality. If you don’t come with it, I suspect you acquire it. And in all that wilderness, there’s not enough civilization to knock the rough edges off. People who live in Oregon’s wild places have a Strong Flavor. For many that’s an unaquired Acquired Taste.

I thought of myself squatted by my front door, sighting down my rifle barrel at a troublesome neighbor come to steel my firewood, and while I didn’t stop picking out the houses I loved, I did stop speculating about possibly moving into one of them.

And then we were there, at the camp, and there was Patrick, walking toward me across the field between the lodge and the parking lot. He said hello, and then he fished his DS out of the back seat, lifted it in his hand, and said, “Going to go get some pictures…fond memories!” And he walked away.

And that set the tone for the rest of our time at the camp–he brought his stuff from his cabin, and put it into the car, then headed off for his tuba–and forgot to come back. I watched him wandering through the crowd by the lodge, talking to friends and snapping pictures. He started back toward the me, then turned around and went back for the forgotten tuba. We got it shoehorned into the trunk and then went to stand in line for the barbecue.

We ate our hotdogs, fruit chunks, potato salad, and jello sitting on the grass in the sun–and then he was off with his DS, talking to friends and shooting pictures. And then we started back through the mountains toward the auditorium where the last event of Brass Camp was scheduled–a concert.

We parked the car, got out the tuba, and Patrick disappeared with it. I went into the auditorium and found a seat. Parents and family began to stream in and fill the other chairs. By the time the camp director welcomed us the room was full.

The concert began. A five-piece group. A nine-piece group. A stageful of trombones. A stageful of trumpets. The music was incredible. I sat there listening to the bright, clear notes of the trombones and trumpets, the smooth mellow notes of the horns, and then, at last, the deep, velvety tones of the tubas.

There were a lot of them, and they came in different sizes. When Patrick started taking tuba lessons I had thought they were pretty much limited to marching bands and comedy music. Over the years I have come to appreciate the finerĀ  points of the instrument as I listened to him play, and compete in musical festivals. Even so, though, yesterday was a revelation. There were too many tubas to put on the stage, so the director had us help set up chairs and music stands on the main floor. Eighteen of them. And then the tubas came in. I have grown used to seeing Patrick tower of the rest of the band. Yesterday I saw him in a line with ten other tuba players–and every one of those boys was huge. It was like looking at the Defensive Linemen of music.

Then the second row came in. These were the baby tuba players–or, rather, the euphonium players. Euphoniums look like baby tubas. The conductor lifted his hands, and the band began to play. It sounded like velvet, like thunder. It was music to be felt, not just heard. Tuba ensembles demand a response, and it comes from deep in your bones.

When they finished there was a moment of silence as we in the audience caught our breath, and then a storm of clapping. It was more than just fond parents applauding their children’s efforts–it was the just due for an incredible performance. And it happened in a week.

I’m not a great one for promoting products here, or even for offering advice. This is more my thinking place. But I’ve had a week to think about this, and watching Patrick at the camp yesterday, (Patrick, who started the camp feeling homesick, but who finished with “fond memories”), followed by that amazing concert has convinced me it’s time to do both: If you have a child who longs to make his or her mark on the world, suggest band. And if you possibly can, send your child to Music Camps @ Wallowa Lake.

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